French Flag Photo courtesy of François Schnell, Flickr.
‘Je ne suis pas d’accord avec ce que vous dites, mais je me battrai jusqu’à la mort pour que vous ayez le droit de le dire.’
‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’
This ‘quotation’ from Francois-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire (1694-1778), may be apocryphal but it illustrates perfectly the stand taken by this great philosopher of the Enlightenment in defence of one of our basic democratic freedoms – freedom of speech and expression (later enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution).
It is a tragic irony, therefore, that five years ago on November 13th 2015, in a Parisian boulevard named after Voltaire, 90 people were massacred by religious fanatics opposed to such liberties. These victims, and other ‘miscreants’, were punished in a series of three separate attacks, one outside the Stade de France during an international football match, the second in Paris, aimed at people sitting on café terraces and the third, mentioned above, at the Bataclan Theatre on Boulvard Voltaire where fans had assembled to hear a concert by The Eagles of Death Metal. In total, on that terrible night, Islamist terrorists killed 130 people and injured 416 others .
Since then there have been numerous similarly bloody attacks and atrocities committed in the name of Islamic jihad, culminating in September this year with the beheading of teacher Samuel Paty and the stabbing to death, 12 days later, of three people inside the church of the Notre Dame Basilica in Nice.
In an IFOP survey published on 2nd September this year, 74% of French Muslims under the age of 24 stated that they put Islam before the Republic. French President Emmanuel Macron has taken a brave stand against what he calls ‘Islamist separatism’, whereby children are brought up to reject French values and culture. A brave stand, and a lonely one. Here in France we are wondering what’s happened to our allies. This is not a problem exclusive to one country. In Europe alone, the UK, Spain and Germany have all fallen victim to Islamist attacks.
In the Lockerbie bombing of 1988, a total of 270 people were killed – all the plane’s passengers and crew plus people on the ground. In the Madrid train bombing of March 2004, 193 were killed and 2000 injured. In the 2005 London suicide attacks (7/7) 52 were killed and more than 700 injured. In December 2016 at the Berlin Christmas market 12 were killed and 56 injured. In August 2017 on Las ramblas in Barcelona and in the town of Cambrils , 16 were killed and 133 injured. And 2017, one of the bloodiest years in the UK suffered four attacks (Westminster, London Bridge/Borough Market, Parsons Green and, deadliest of all, the Manchester suicide bomber who, in a similar attack to that on the Bataclan, targeted a pop concert at the Manchester Arena killing 22 people (10 of them under 20) and injuring more than 800, including many children.
Where are those brave enough to speak out and engage in the fight to defend fundamental tenets of western democracy, those universal values and principles whose importance should surely transcend, by far, local and temporal political issues and in-fighting? Douglas Murray, quoting Martin Luther King-‘In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends’-puts the question here, while, in his article, Ed Hussain describes how political Islam attacks on three fronts. Agnès Poirier, in a moving piece, talks about French secular education and the regard in which the French hold their history teachers. As for the mealy-mouthed reporting of terrorist atrocities in the anglophone mainstream media (such as The New York Times who chose the headline ‘French Police Shoot and Kill Man After Fatal Knife Attack’ to describe the beheading of Samuel Paty after a social media campaign had whipped up religious hatred against him against him), Liam Duffy takes on the press here, asking why France is being portrayed as the villain.
In 2015 I wrote a blog in reaction to the killings of 13 November, quoting the poem by Paul Eluard, ‘Liberté, j’écris ton nom,’ (Freedom, I write your name), re-posted below.
November 17 2015
In July I wrote a blog about Paris. It began:
“Just back from two weeks in Paris, the most beautiful and evocative city on earth…City of Light, City of Love… the Seine and its bridges.”
I then went on to talk about a poem:
“…the melancholic poem about love and time by Guillaume Apollinaire that every student of the French Baccalauréat knows by heart, ‘Le Pont Mirabeau’.
On November 13 in Paris a gang of murdering cowards hiding behind Kalashnikovs turned their weapons on families and children enjoying an evening at the restaurant, on football fans enjoying a friendly game, on excited music fans enjoying a rock concert. Their aim was to turn the City of Light into the City of Darkness, the City of Love into the City of Hate and Fear.
It’s doubtful that these brutal, ignorant murderers had ever read Apollinaire’s poem, or indeed any other work of literature. They had surely never thrilled to the verses of Shakespeare, wept at the poetry of Homer; never shared the sufferings of Jean Valjean or Edmond Dantès.
And others like them, lashed to the ideology of terrorism and tyranny, will never, ever, understand why Allied planes, flying over occupied France in World War 2, dropped not just weapons to the maquis: fluttering down from the sky came thousands of copies of a poem, which would continue to inspire and uplift those men and women risking their lives in the fight against Nazi tyranny.
Its title was ‘Liberté, j’écris ton nom’ , Freedom, I write your name.
Written by poet and Resistance member Paul Eluard in 1942, its celebratory stanzas end with the following lines:
Et par le pouvoir d’un mot
Je recommence ma vie
Je suis né pour te connaître
Pour te nommer:
And through the power of one word
I begin my life again
I was born to know you
To name you:
This weekend the Eiffel Tower was cloaked in darkness as the world mourned the victims of November 13th. But the darkness was temporary.
Last night the lights came on again as the Lady put on the colours of the tricolor demonstrating once again the regenerative power of one word: